Pro-settlement protests halt traffic throughout Israel

JERUSALEM — Evening rush-hour took on nightmarish proportions for Israeli drivers Tuesday when thousands of right-wing demonstrators blocked roads throughout the country.

The demonstrations, coordinated by a grass-roots settlers group called Zo Artzeinu, or "This Is Our Land", clogged major arteries in Israel from 5:30-7:30 p.m., the height of rush-hour traffic.

Although the turnout was lower in many places than the organizers had hoped, the high-profile campaign, which received much publicity in the Israeli media, was seen as a success in that it snarled traffic at crossroads in the north and in the south.

In the Negev, traffic was tied up at one intersection for nearly an hour.

"We need to show that this country is almost out of control," said Akiva Paz, a 19-year-old yeshiva student who watched the scuffles from a Jerusalem sidewalk.

"Thousands of people are against the peace process, and they are all out demonstrating."

The protests came as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat agreed on a final timetable for an Israeli pullout from West Bank cities and Palestinian self-rule.

They also capped off four straight days of often stormy protests last week on several West Bank hilltops by settlers opposed to any ceding of West Bank lands to the Palestinians.

In Jerusalem on Tuesday, hundreds of protesters, virtually all religious Jerusalemites, tried to block Sha'ar Hagai, a busy intersection at the entrance to the city.

Carrying placards denouncing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as a traitor, the demonstrators stood or sat in front of cars entering and leaving the capital. Most appeared to be teenagers or young adults.

Unlike some of last week's demonstrations in the territories, most of the Jerusalem protesters kept very young children at home.

Clearly prepared for skirmishes, Jerusalem police stationed dozens of officers, some on horseback, around the protesters, in an attempt to keep them on the sidelines.

But their tactics proved unsuccessful, as dozens of demonstrators crossed the intersection, stopping traffic for a minute or two.

Drivers sympathetic to the cause honked their horns in approval; irritated commuters also gave loud honks to show their annoyance.

Just as the police seemed to be losing ground, more than 100 border police armed with M-16 rifles and billy clubs circled the crowd. This time, when protesters tried to stop traffic, three or four officers converged, dragging them away.

At least two dozen protesters, most shouting and kicking, were placed in a police wagon and arrested in Jerusalem. Scores of others were arrested elsewhere.

Binyamin Rockover, one of the few demonstrators with infants in tow, defied a police call to remove his 3-month-old daughter from the scene.

"I don't think this is dangerous. It will be more dangerous if Rabin carries out his plans," he said.

"We're giving away Eretz Yisrael," said Elisha Ben-Haim, 44. "Perhaps now Rabin will understand that something is wrong. He's giving our homeland away to terrorists."

This opinion was echoed by 25-year-old Tamar Lehavi, one of the few secular Jews at the demonstration.

"It feels as if our country is being given away," she said. "The peace process is like a runaway train, and I can't see the line where it will stop."

Lehavi stressed that "many secular Israelis support the settlers. The religious population is more organized, so they're more visible. But I know many others who sympathize with their position."

While the turnout for Tuesday's demonstrations in Jerusalem was measured in the hundreds, the main demonstration site in northern Tel Aviv — at the Arlozorov Street and Haifa Road intersection — drew just 100.

At times, the protesters there were outnumbered by the surrounding journalists, photographers, and radio and television crews who had gathered to cover the event.

Chaim Lanton, a Tel Aviv resident and one of the protest's organizers, said he expected at least 1,000 demonstrators. Lanton was quick to point out that at least half of those who showed up were secular Israelis.

Among the demonstrators was Rivka Vachtman, 65, of Tel Aviv, who lost eight family members in Israeli-Arab wars.

"I fought in '48, in the War of Independence. I accompanied the convoys to the besieged Jerusalem. And I came to protest this government's policies," she said.

One of the demonstrators wore a Zo Artzeinu T-shirt depicting a map of "Greater Israel" that included Jordan.

On the front of the T-shirt read the words: "I don't mind getting arrested for our land."